How could the warfare in which the Israelites participate in Joshua be right?
One of the most common and challenging questions encountered in the Old Testament is the issue of Holy War. God commands the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17::
“But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded…”
Naturally, when someone reads this today, shock and horror are common responses, especially among the compassionate. How could God command the destruction of an entire people? This sounds like God-sanctioned genocide! By the time you get to the word genocide, there is a lot of emotion involved. In a culture today that sees very little as wrong, genocide is one of the undisputed evils virtually everyone agrees on. So how do we answer the question posed by the command of God and the actions of the Israelites in Joshua (& in 1 Samuel 15). Why would God do such a thing?
1) The destruction of these people was not genocide. They were not being killed for their ethnicity, but for their idolatry. Depending on who you are talking to, this may not be the most persuasive or helpful point, but it is true. God showed mercy to Rahab & her family because she showed faith. God showed mercy to Ruth, the Moabitess, and included her even in the genealogy of David, and ultimately of Jesus. As we saw before, God loves the nations, and desires to bless all the nations through Abraham.
2) To allow these people to coexist with Israel would lead to Israel learning all of their wicked practices. This is the reason immediately given for the destruction in Deuteronomy 20:18:
“that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.”
If you doubt that is a real danger, realize that is exactly what happened to Israel. They failed to drive the people out fully, and so their worship of false gods became a snare to Israel.
3) The destruction of these people was judgment from God. It was not merely to make room for the Israelites. Proof of this is God’s patience, for which the people of Israel had to wait 400 years before they would be permitted to enter the land. As God explained to Abraham in Genesis 15:16:
“And they (Abraham’s descendants) shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
4) Our present-day situation is different. God has made it known that Christians are to advance his kingdom through peaceful means. In John 18:36, Jesus said to Pilate, My kingdom is not of this world—if it was, my servants would be fighting. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom will come through a different type of conquest. We are not to kill for Jesus. We are in a period of peace, and we are God’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:18-21). To be an ambassador means that we are to go into foreign and hostile territory, and to represent our king. Our job is to plead with men during this time of peace that they would be reconciled to God. Be certain that God promises that one day every knee will bow, every tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:11) Our prayer is that they do it willingly, rather than as conquered enemies at the end of all things. Jesus is coming back, and when he returns he will not come as a humble carpenter, but as a mighty warrior (Revelation 19:11-21). God alone has the righteousness to wage a truly holy war.